Heroin is an illegal drug that people use for its euphoric effects. However, it can lead to addiction and cause severe side effects and withdrawal symptoms. Treatment for heroin addiction involves medication and behavioral therapy.
Heroin is a type of opioid. Unlike some other types of opioids, it has no recognized medical use in the United States. Instead, people use it for recreational purposes, such as to reach a state of euphoria, to self-treat pain, or for other purposes.
People who use heroin can become tolerant of the drug. This means they will need larger or more frequent doses to achieve the desired effects. Heroin can produce unwanted side effects. It can also lead to unintentional overdose and death.
This article reviews heroin’s effects, how people administer it, signs of addiction, and risks. It also explores addiction treatment and where to find support.
Heroin is a type of opioid made for recreational drug use. It can lead to addiction and misuse and has associations with several potentially severe side effects.
Heroin derives from morphine, which is found naturally in various opium poppy plants that grow in many countries, including Mexico, Colombia, and Southeast and Southwest Asia.
An estimated 1.1 million people in the United States over the age of 12 reported using heroin in the 12 months up to 2021.
Heroin is not legal in any state in the U.S. It is a Schedule I controlled substance, which means there is no recognized medical use for the drug.
Other terms a person may use include:
- big H
- black tar
- hell dust
Heroin works similarly to other opioids by binding to the opioid receptors in the central nervous system (CNS), which consists of the brain and spinal cord. Heroin typically affects receptors responsible for feelings of pain and pleasure, as well as those that affect heart rate, breathing, and sleep.
As a result, heroin can cause what people describe as a rush or state of euphoria. It can also cause both short- and long-term effects.
Short-term effects can include:
- warm flushing of the skin
- severe itching
- dry mouth
- heavy feeling in the arms and legs
- nausea and vomiting
- reverting back and forth between semiconscious and conscious states
- clouded mental functioning
Long-term effects from regular use can include:
- constipation and stomach cramping
- skin abscesses (swollen tissue filled with pus) for people who inject heroin
- infection of the heart lining and valves (endocarditis) for people who inject heroin
- collapsed veins for people who inject heroin
- damaged tissue inside the nose – for people who sniff or snort it
- lung complications, including pneumonia
- liver and kidney disease
- sexual dysfunction in males
- mental health disorders, such as depression and antisocial personality disorder
- irregular menstrual cycles
A person can use heroin through a variety of methods. They include:
- snorting or sniffing
Additionally, some people may engage in speedballing, which involves mixing heroin with crack cocaine for a stronger effect.
People may also combine heroin with other substances, such as:
Healthcare experts may also refer to heroin misuse as a substance use disorder (SUD). This has similar criteria to an OUD but refers to the misuse of a variety of substances rather than opioids, such as heroin, specifically.
Learn more about addiction symptoms.
Diagnosis of heroin addiction
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR), indicates that a person must meet specific criteria to receive a diagnosis of an OUD. Addiction is the most severe form of an OUD.
Signs of heroin addiction
A person must show at least two of the
- an overpowering desire to use heroin
- increased heroin tolerance
- taking larger amounts of heroin over a longer period than intended
- unsuccessful efforts to cut down on heroin use
- continually using heroin despite health issues likely caused or worsened by heroin
- spending a significant amount of time obtaining, using, or recovering from the effects of heroin
- difficulty fulfilling obligations with work, school, or home life
- stopping activities because of heroin use
- using heroin in hazardous situations, such as driving under the influence
- continually using heroin despite social or interpersonal issues
- experiencing withdrawal symptoms after stopping heroin use
If a person stops using heroin suddenly, it can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms. These may begin within a few hours after a person last took the drug and can include:
- diarrhea and vomiting
- severe muscle and bone pain
- sleep problems
- uncontrollable leg movements
- severe cravings for heroin
- cold flashes with goosebumps
Heroin use can lead to addiction. This will likely require treatment and support to help recovery.
Additionally, a person can unintentionally overdose on heroin. Heroin has a short half-life. The half-life of a drug is the time it takes for the amount of a drug’s active substance in your body to reduce by half. This means that heroin’s effects wear off quickly, and people must take it
Some people also develop a tolerance to heroin, meaning they must take increasingly stronger doses to get the same effect. Both of these factors may increase a person’s risk of overdosing.
Treatment for OUDs often involves a combination of mental health services and medications.
A person should speak with a healthcare professional if they are thinking of stopping using heroin. They can help arrange a safe and effective treatment plan that minimizes health risks.
Medications can help by attaching to the same opioid receptors as heroin. This can help to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Medications include:
- Methadone: This medication helps to reduce symptoms of heroin withdrawal and cravings
- Buprenorphine: This medication also helps to reduce heroin withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
- Naltrexone: This helps to stop heroin cravings.
Mental health services can also play an important role in recovery from addiction. A healthcare professional may recommend the following therapies:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): This type of therapy helps to manage triggers and stress and change drug-use behaviors.
- Narcotics Anonymous: A 12-step program that supports behavioral modification, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous.
- Contingency management: This helps provide motivational incentives for staying drug-free.
A person may also find support groups and addiction groups helpful for recovery.
Several government and non-profit organizations can provide support for heroin addiction.
The SAMHSA National Helpline can connect people to addiction services. A person can call their number at 1-800-662-4357 or visit their website for online support. Both are available 24/7.
A person can also talk with a healthcare professional or psychiatrist to get information on local treatment centers and support groups.
Support groups and services are widely available in the U.S. People with addiction and their family members may find support groups to help them cope with stress and issues that may occur due to heroin use.
One example is Narcotics Anonymous, which runs a 12-step group program to aid recovery from addiction to substances such as heroin.
Heroin is a highly addictive drug that some people use for recreational purposes. It is an illegal substance that has no recognised medical use in the U.S.
People who take heroin often describe feelings of euphoria, although this is often short lived. They may also experience unpleasant side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, and itching.
If someone continually misuses heroin, they may develop an opioid use disorder (OUD). One sign of an OUD includes increased tolerance to heroin, meaning that a person has to take larger amounts to get the same effect.
Some people may also experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking heroin suddenly. If a person takes too large a dose, they may unintentionally overdose. In some cases, this can cause death.
People with OUDs often require treatment to recover from heroin addiction. Treatment can include a combination of medication, therapy, and support groups.